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Comment: Detroit's re-birth shows us localism doesn't need legislation

HOK’s Sherin Aminossehe looks to the global stage to discover how localism could in the UK

I don’t often feel moved to write about an event that I’ve been to, nor am I a particular proponent of the movement that says we can learn some of our best lessons of urban regeneration from our American neighbours. This time though, it was different.

As I write this, just having returned from a ULI conference in Paris, a nation not particularly known for its joie-de-vivre when it comes down to listening to the ‘little people’, there is much hand wringing about the ideals of Big Society or localism and whether they will stand up to scrutiny.

David Cameron’s piece was published in a Sunday broadsheet justifying the coalition’s philosophy on why they refuse to “water down” their ideas, backed with TV appearances throughout yesterday making it look as if the ideals of Big Society might go up in a big puff of smoke. So it was with much surprise when I was invited to the Happold Consulting and WAN joint workshop on Detroit and heard how the local population, or what’s left of it, are getting involved in shaping the future direction of their city straight from the people on the front line, in this case Deputy Director of the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department Marja Winters.

Workshops filled with experts, in this case ranging from Peter Murray as the chair to CZWG’s Piers Gough, Juliet Davis from the LSE, Peter Bishop and Newham Council’s Clive Dutton, can be top down affairs, but this tended to be the opposite, as those who still live there had told their leaders what they wanted to begin with and we were there to flesh out and offer case studies and suggestions based on our experience on other ways that the community can be brought together. Liverpool and Manchester and HOK’s own experience in its home town of St Louis were all brought up as examples of this.

The circumstances leading to this community action, if a little extreme, are rather simple. Sometimes it takes a cataclysmic event to get a community to pull together, or in the case of Detroit, a leaking population which has the number of inhabitants half over the last 60 years, leaving one of the highest unemployment rates in the US and an urban fabric that is literally unravelling year after year. The city is filled with empty lots, burnt out buildings and rapidly emptying downtown neighbourhoods.

Without government intervention that would be it in some cities. The local government might hang out a sign asking the last citizen to leave to turn out the lights. But not in Detroit.

An urban grain that is more characterised by voids than built form has given over to a scenario where empty lots have been rejuvenated into city parks and urban agriculture projects, while run down and half-derelict buildings become community art projects, all very much spear-headed by residents who aren’t ready to give up on the home of the motor car. But as with all of these types of city wide projects, planning and consultation fatigue is a real danger - no matter how pro-active the locals are - which is why this time the framework, that is being jointly developed by Happolds and the city, must work. There might not be second chance.

So what is the lesson for us? Does the Big D tell us how to create a Big Society?

Not quite. What it shows is that localism doesn’t need legislation to make it happen, just understanding, listening and a method of enablement  that allows us to unleash it when it matters.

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